Story: Ideas in New Zealand

Page 5. Wakefield and the ‘better Britain’

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Wakefield’s ideas

New Zealand was the most important setting for the experimental ideas of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a child of the Enlightenment. His central idea was that if land in colonies was sold at a ‘sufficient price’, this would cure major problems for both colonies and the home country.

For the colony, the price would provide funds to pay for the free migration of labourers, who would then be available to work for wages on the land before eventually becoming landowners themselves. Thus the dispersal of the population and the creation of frontier anarchy would be prevented. Drawing on philosopher Adam Smith’s division of labour, Wakefield suggested that available wage labour would give landowners the leisure for civilised pursuits.

For the home country, the system would provide a valuable use of surplus capital, challenging the ideas of social reformer Jeremy Bentham and economist James Mill on the dangers of capital outflow. As the colony developed it would provide cheap food and a flourishing market for home exports, in contrast with Smith’s suggestion that free trade made colonies unnecessary. Colonisation would also ease cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus’s fears that population growth at home would create a crisis as food and resources ran out.

The New Zealand vision

Wakefield’s settlement scheme was applied, not always successfully, by the New Zealand Company in the 1840s, and his ideas spawned long-term utopian aspirations. His vision suggested a New World which preserved the best of British civilisation while avoiding its problems. In place of a society of penurious landless labourers alongside a decadent aristocracy, there would be hard-working wage-earners who might graduate to land ownership.

This vision – a property-owning democracy in which people could earn land ownership, and a colony free from the inequalities and urban decadence of the Old World – was promoted by the New Zealand Company and then by provincial and national governments as they advertised for immigrants. These ideas became central to New Zealand thinking for the next century – not spelled out in theoretical treatises, but expressed in newspaper editorials, reminiscences, pamphlets and political speeches.

Fear of ferns

Missionary Richard Taylor’s 1867 book The past and present of New Zealand expressed well the central New Zealand ideal – that the frontier of gloomy fern and frightening bush would be replaced by a cheerful land of wheat and English grasses, of homesteads and gardens.

A society of small landowners implied a ‘middle landscape’ – sitting between bush and city. Large cities would be avoided by settling people on the land, or encouraging suburban, not inner-city, living. It was a vision that left little place for Māori ownership of the land, unless Māori too could become individual yeoman farmers.

Social laboratory of the world

These ideas took another step in the Liberal governments of the 1890s and 1900s. New Zealand traditions were strengthened by some overseas ideas. New Zealanders read the American thinker Henry George on the importance of the single tax on land, which was designed to tax the ‘unearned increment’ on land (the increased value which followed from closer settlement rather than any improvements in the land itself).

The result was an effort to break up large estates and settle people on the land, although these government actions followed from shared beliefs rather than high-flown works of theory. The heart of the vision echoed Wakefield’s ideal of New Zealand as a pastoral paradise, ‘God’s own people’, who had escaped Old World evils of class conflict and large cities and established a just society in which people could progress through hard work, not privilege.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Ideas in New Zealand - Wakefield and the ‘better Britain’', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014